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Syria (Al-Jumhuriya al-`Arabiya as-Suriya, the Syrian Arab Republic) is one of the larger states of the Middle East and has its capital in Damascus. Syria is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iraq, by Jordan and Israel to the south, and by Lebanon to the south-west. In addition, the country possesses a long coastline on the east Mediterranean Sea.

Syria has a population of 17.8 million people (UN, 2003), of which 6 million are concentrated in the capital Damascus. A moderately large country (185,180 sq km or 72,150 sq miles), Syria is situated centrally within the Middle East region and has land borders with Turkey in the north, with Israel and Lebanon in the south, and with Iraq and Jordan in the east and south-east respectively.

The population of Syria is predominately Arab (90%), with large minorities from other ethnic groups: Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turks. The official language is Arabic, but other tongues are widely spoken and include Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish, French and English. The Syrian Republic is officially secular, but in nonetheless greatly influenced by the majority religion of Islam (90% of the population, split between 74% Sunni Muslim and 16% other Muslim). There is a large Christian minority that amounts to about 10% of the population.

The President of Syria is Bashar al-Assad, who replaced his father Hafez al-Assad soon after his death on 10 June 2000. Having studied to become an opthalmologist (eye doctor) in Damascus and London, Bashar was groomed for the presidency after the 1994 car accident of his elder brother Basil. As a consequence, he joined the army and became colonel in 1999. Bashar's modernising credentials were somewhat boosted by his role in a domestic anti-corruption drive. More recently, however, Bashar's style of leadership has more closely come to resemble that of his father as an non-democratically elected and autocratic ruler, after an initial period of increased openness. Bashar's position as dictator of Syria rests on his presidency of the Baath Party (the only legal political party) and his command-in-chief of the army. A "cult of personality" is widely promoted for Bashar Assad and his late father - their images are to be seen everywhere in the streets of Syria.

Assad's regime and the Baath Party own or control the vast majority of Syria's media. Criticism of the president and his family is not permitted and the press (both foreign and domestic) are heavily censored for material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. A brief period of relative press freedom arose after Bashar became president in 2000 and saw the licensing of the first private publications in almost 40 years. A later crackdown, however, imposed a range of restrictions regarding licensing and content. In a more relaxed manner (perhaps owing more to the fact that these matters are largely beyond possible government control), many Syrians have gained access to foreign television broadcasts (usually via satellite) as well as the three state-run networks. In 2002 the government set out conditions for licensing private, commercial FM radio stations, ruling at the same time, however, that radio stations could not broadcast news or political content.

Visas are needed for most individual travellers. A "letter of recommendation" stating that your consulate has "no objection" to your visit to Syria is required for many nationalities.

In Amman and Istanbul, Syrian visas are issued within one day. The cost is 45 euros as of 11 September 2006. For American citizens, the Syrian government has tightened restrictions and is requiring visas issued from the embassy in DC even if you are applying in the country you have residence in. It is vitally important that there is no evidence of a visit to Israel (called "Occupied Palestine" by Syria) in your pasport, i.e. a stamp or visa from Israel, or Jordanian or Egyptian border crossings with Israel. Likewise you shouldn't say that you have or will travel to Israel to officials in the embassy or at the border. It is rumoured this restriction is very strict - if you have a brand new passport or a period in the middle east with gaps between the exit and entry stamps, a visit to Israel might be suspected and your visa will be denied, or your entry will be denied even with visa.

Visas are available at the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, but this requires waiting up to 11 hours while the request is faxed to Damascus, processed, and faxed back. Whether you can get in or not can be very capricious. It is possible for Americans to get in this way, but other nationalities are more likely to get in.

Information provided by Wikipedia

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